Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: A mesmerizing, thrilling adventure that transcends the trappings of its genre.
Review: Bah… dum. Bah…. dum. Bah-dum. Bah-dum. Bah-dum. Bah-DUM! Almost anyone you ask will identify the theme to this film, a testimony to the brilliance of a young John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with director Steven Spielberg.
This first film was ‘Jaws’.
Based on a popular novel, Spielberg’s clever adaption has earned a reputation entirely detached from its source material. It’s an amazing testament to the production crew’s resilience that this film was ever finished. They were beset with numerous problems from the get-go, but as necessity is the mother of invention, they managed to turn these lemons into a pitcher of suspenseful lemonade. Audiences in 1975 clearly agreed, and the film became the very first bona-fide summer blockbuster. It is clear that ‘Jaws’, due to its broad appeal and lasting popularity, is more than a horror film; it is a suspense masterpiece on the level of Alfred Hitchcock himself.
The film opens with what is arguably the most horrific moment of its entire narrative. The death of a young woman, going for a midnight skinny-dip, is the only time I felt truly disturbed. Granted, it’s bloodless and simply ends with her being pulled underwater, but the sound effects, music, and especially the young actress’ convincing performance makes it unwatchable. It also proves only an implication is necessary; the minds of the audience members are quite adequate in deducing the lurid details.
After this, it picks up. Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, goes out to investigate the report of a body on the beach. After discovering the woman’s remains, he immediately concludes that there is a killer shark on the loose, and sets out to close the beaches. And now we are introduced to our first conflict, presented to Brody by the Mayor. He warns that the July 4th weekend is coming up, and thus the beaches must stay open, for the sake of the town economy. Amity’s biggest week can’t be shut down based on one isolated incident. Brody, still skeptical, continues to lobby for closing the beaches, while the word gets out about the shark attack.
With the stage set, the filmmakers continue to up the threat- or possibly perceived threat- of the shark until it reaches a breaking point for Brody. His own son is nearly killed by the shark, and he finally enlists the help of the eccentric fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw), and Matthew Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss). The three men get on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and head out into open sea in search of the monster.
To this point in the film, the shark, a Great White, is never fully seen. One day on the boat, Brody is instructed by Quint to throw out chum (dead fish and the various trappings of dead fish), in order to draw the shark. It sure does, giving the audience- and Brody- quite a shock. Brody quickly retreats to the cabin, and famously warns Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”. The men then spring into action, spotting the shark again and estimating its size to be around 25 feet long. Brilliantly, in this film it doesn’t really matter that the shark is huge, as intimidating as that is. Since footage of the shark is sparse, due to issues with the animatronic model they used during filming, the shark is more a presence or character than a monster. You really believe it is out to get those men on the boat.
There is no disputing the fact that the film is quite terrifying, especially if you don’t know anything about it. Every frame, once they are on the water, is wrought with underlying tension. The shark is a constant threat. Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes it, for me, from being a horror film. The tone is much closer to one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run adventures, such as ‘North by Northwest’, than that other Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’. Some of the shark’s victims do bleed, and some are dismembered, but I never got a sense of violence any more extreme than Spielberg’s later work, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, with one exception, that being the opening scene.
All things considered, ‘Jaws’ is very well crafted. It has stood the test of time. It’s a shame that when filmmakers nowadays want to thrill moviegoers with a scary movie, they resort to sadistic, self-parodying schlock films in the vein of ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ as opposed to a genuine adventure like ‘Jaws’. An adventure, if it is truly an adventure, should be scary. There’s nothing wrong with having a film that respects human life whilst instilling genuine suspense. I suppose that’s what truly separates ‘Jaws’ from horror… a filmmaker who knew the audience was there to have fun, not be disgusted. Sort of like Hitchcock.